Dampening Paper…. do you do it?

I’ve been looking over the various posts about pressure, ink transfer, and printing solid areas lino cuts/ large type on small presses…. and it occurred to me that very few folks here mention dampening the paper. Forme and some of the other more experienced printers have recommended it from time to time, but most of the younger/newer printers don’t seem to talk about it at all. It’s almost as if they either don’t know that it’s a viable option, or it’s social faux pas of some sort.

Well, social faux pas or not, I have a confession to make: I dampen my paper whenever I’m printing a large solid on a small press. There. I said it. That’s how I get those large areas to print black black on my low-pressure presses. It works like a charm if you do it right.

So…. now that the stigma of dampening paper has been thrown open for discussion… what are your ideas on the matter? Do you ever dampen your paper to print large areas? Have you EVER tried it?

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I’ve been dampening paper for a number of years, it depends of what type of paper I’m using.
When using a very absorbent hand-made paper, you will find that a dark grey finish will occur and incresing the pressure will cause strike-through, also eventually premature wear and damage of the typeface. So damping is essential for that crisp black quality finish in my book.

Since I handfeed my press, I set up a simple $15.00 humidifier between the press and my stack of paper and I pass the paper through the stream of steam before I print. I found that if you dampen both sides of the paper, you get less curling as the paper dries.

I printed a 6.5 x 6.5 image on a c & p pilot on cranes lettra - 4 colors and dampened the paper each time. The paper flattened out no problem- they were cards and the spines were fine as well. I think that dampening the paper is HUGE- and was taught to do this in art school for other printmaking techniques. if you can’t get an evenly inked image because the surface area is too large- then dampen it…the results are worth it big time.

Hi. I have three approaches to dampening paper:

(1) When I want the highest quality on things meant to be kept, I sponge both sides of the paper with distilled water and put it under weights for 24 hours, turning the stack several times. If more than one pass is to be made, I store the printed sheets in a humidor fashioned from available materials, like kitchen containers and baking racks. Maybe someday I’ll build a real humidor.

(2) To improve the print quality on things of an ephemeral nature, I quick-and-dirty dampen the paper by sponging the area to be printed shortly before I print. I use a Vandercook, and I lightly press a damp sponge on each sheet just before it goes in the grippers.

(3) For things of an ephemeral nature that look just fine for the purpose, I don’t bother dampening at all.

Armchair Detective, could you elaborate on your steam dampener? I’ve thought about building some sort of steam contraption, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Erika, I’m interested in more details on how dampening works with Lettra. I’ve heard that Lettra was engineered so that it wouldn’t need dampening. Also, how do you dampen an already-printed sheet, and what kind of ink do you use? Do you have registration problems with the paper swelling and shrinking at different rates with each dampening? Have you posted a photo anywhere of the piece you mentioned? It sounds awesome!


Barbara: I use a humidifier meant for bedside use that we bought at a local drugstore. I initially thought of building some sort of enclosed humidor or perhaps a wire rack that a stack of paper would sit on, using the steam from the humidifier to dampen the sheets. But what I found out quickly is that the paper gets thoroughly soaked and useless in no time. So what I do, and what works just fine, is to hold a sheet of paper by the edges and slowly pass it back and forth in front of the steam discharge a time or two. Be sure to turn the paper over and do the same for the back to keep the paper from curling, or at least to cut down on any warpage. You may have to experiment with half a dozen sheets or so as you use different stock, keeping the paper in front of the steam for varying numbers of seconds before printing until you get the dampness just right.

Thanks so much, AD. My first thought was the same as yours — to build an enclosed steam dampener. But now I’ll try the humidifier. This is great. My studio already appears to family and friends like an eccentric alchemist’s laboratory. The steam will complete the picture. Prints arising from the mist!


So I’ll bite - I’ll admit I haven’t tried dampening, or really know much about it.

Can somebody explain the theory behind it? Does dampening just force the ink to stay at the surface of the paper, giving a more bold/dense color?

Also how does anybody accommodate dampening in a more “production” based manner? I don’t have a treadle on my press (which is powered) & don’t think the Humidifier pass-through would be a viable option when the machines chugging along (hand or auto feeding). The humidor would be the only way I could see to do it for myself, but would it affect paper handling in any way? (like limp sheets, or sheets sticking together).

Also - I saw Barb ask about registration due to paper swelling above (between passes/colors) - thats a question that I’d like to hear some input on too. Along the same line, would the dampening soften the paper to the extent that it may be more easily damaged by hitting the guides/pins? (making it hard to achieve register on your next pass).



There is some well established practice regarding dampening. Not much point in re-inventing a time-tested wheel. It is primarily useful for hand operated presses, iron handpress platens, Vandercooks. It will give more vibrant color without the detriment of over inking to achieve the same. It will also provide remarkable clarity and precision to letterform and image in inking.

I suspect though that it is not the most reliable way to go with a job press or production platen for the reasons you have mentioned. It is more a hand process that cannot be driven by the machine.

It does soften the fiber, allowing for greater penetration of ink, less wear on the typographic surface, etc. But it is only useful on waterleaf or engine sized papers, especially mouldmade or handmades. It is a a waste of time on commerically made domestic papers because of severe grain direction concerns and external sizing. So, yes, without proper hydration control, multiple pass registration would be a complete nightmare on commercial grade papers, and is still somewhat of a handful on mouldmades/handmades.

This is more a problem with grain swelling but I see your point in regard to registration guides and suspect that on a motor driven machine edge softening could be a problem (though, proper dampening doesn’t really make the sheet soft and pliable to such a degree).


Even in mass produced stock, the paper must maintain a certain level of moisture to aid in printing.

I never knew this until we were supplied stock meant for for digital printing for an offset job. When the digital stock was wet by the dampeners, it actually veneered. After speaking to our paper rep, we learned that all papers must be moist, but digital stock must be completely void of moisture as it goes through fusers and the water would boil.

Slightly off topic, but interesting.

I’d have to differ with Gerald’s “waste of time on commercially made domestic papers” comment. I have found dampening to be a great aid in printing many grades of paper which were not handmade or mouldmade. In fact, I have obtained good registration on these by keeping elements of the second color close to the guide edges.

Of course, if there is only one color involved, registration is not a great concern if binding tolerances are not extremely close.

The dampening of paper is not mysterious, but certainly can be miraculous in obtaining better images no matter what the origin of the paper. I find heavily textured cover weight papers to respond well to dampening, and give much better results if done. Certainly worthwhile to me.

The only caveat I would suggest is that the paper have enough internal strength to allow handling while damp. We are talking damp here, not wet, after all.

John Henry
Cedar Creek Press

John Henry - I partly disagree with Gerald’s comment about dampening commercially-made paper…. but I can also see his point.

My experience has been that dampening is great for handpress/proof press work using papers without a lot of sizing, but it’s less handy on platen presses with sized text weight papers. They just seem to be hard to handle at the speeds my C&P runs.

Any advice on how to dry the paper once you’ve printed it so it won’t curl? I just printed my first run on dampened paper and really like the results, but the pages were starting to curl so now I have them in a stack under a heavy book.

Kathy- It all depends on the type of paper you are using. Some papers curl no matter what you do with them, others seem to dry flat on their own.

I typically let them dry without pressure, and then if they curl I press them in a book press for a few days to flatten them back out.


You really should not experience curling during the drying out process. The factors that might result in this are:

your dampening technique and how much you have dampened the sheets, the type of stock you are using, and, most particularly, how even the dampening has been through the stack.

After printing I would keep the heap turning (turn it top to bottom) to eliminate the possibility of this problem. [your stack has to be quite even—not a hay stack!]. Every few hours at first. Once you feel the paper is uniformly dry, then you should use weights, but not much. A flat sheet of thick acetate top and bottom should suffice. Keep that turning as well.


Gerald & Winking- Thanks!!!